18 STYLE | interview
t was a novel about Vincent van Gogh, plucked from a library shelf during a cold Canterbury winter that first piqued a 14-year-old Denis Savill’s interest in the world of art. Brought up on a high country sheep station outside of Hanmer Springs, Savill spent much of his childhood in Christchurch, boarding first at Medbury, then at Christ’s College during his formative years. A desire to see the world saw 20-something Denis travel throughout Europe before settling in London, where he was reintroduced to art when a friend encouraged him to get involved with a nearby auction room, which happened to sell many works of Australian and New Zealand origin. Not quite finished with travelling, however, the young Kiwi soon moved to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where he talked his way into a job with an auction house. The work was diverse and varied, with lots that ranged from livestock and real estate to, yes, art. Savill was one of the few who recognised the investment potential of the works he saw, commenting, “I was fascinated by these paintings, bearing in mind what I’d been told in London.” By the 1970s, Savill had relocated to Sydney and was making waves in the art scene, quickly establishing himself as both a knowledgeable art dealer and a shrewd investor. Well ahead of his time, he recognised the value of Australasian art, and began building up a collection of works by a diverse range of artists. Purchasing Gordon Marsh Gallery in 1981, after a couple of years spent working as a private art dealer, Savill swiftly began carving out a name for himself within the industry. He caught national and global attention when, the following year, he set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold in Australia, a work by J.A. Turner that fetched $350,000. Savill confirmed his presence in the Australasian art scene by renaming and re-branding the gallery to the name it has now operated under for the last 30 years, the eponymous Savill Galleries, based in Sydney’s sought-after inner-city suburb of Paddington. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s he worked tirelessly to build up his collection, acquiring works by such respected Australian painters as Charles
Blackman, Lloyd Rees and Arthur Boyd, among many others. As well as advancing his career, Savill also formed deep connections with the artists he encountered, building friendships that would go on to last a lifetime. Savill’s work has continued to command respect throughout his career, with his collection only strengthening as time has gone on. A benefactor as well, Savill has recently donated more than 200 artworks to galleries throughout Australia, re-affirming his commitment to public art. In recent years, the now 76-year-old Savill has been contemplating the future of his business, and has reached the difficult decision to slowly wind down both his gallery and his presence in the salesroom. Reflecting on his long career, Savill calls to mind his dear friend, the artist Arthur Boyd, a man he regarded as a “true gent”. Recalling a conversation between them, Savill muses, “Arthur told me, ‘You’re a great acquirer, but there will come a time when you’ll feel free to give it away, you’ll feel like you’re unloading.’” Savill admits that he couldn’t understand the sentiment at the time, but as the years have passed since that conversation, Boyd’s words have come to resonate with him more and more, and have guided him in his decision to take more of a back seat in the art world. When asked how he feels about letting go of the art that has defined his life’s work, he replies with a laugh, “How come that’s the best question, and the hardest one to answer?” Of the works he’s handled over the years, he says, “They’re dear to my heart, but you can’t take them upstairs with you.” Savill partnered with respected auction house Sotheby’s last year to sell a selection of his accumulated works, including those by Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan. The auction garnered a huge amount of interest not only from those looking to acquire the available pieces, but also from those wishing to acknowledge the reputation and legacy Savill has built over the decades. The chairman of Sotheby’s Australia, Geoffrey Smith, used the opportunity to pay tribute to Savill’s enduring contribution to the Australian art community, commenting that the auction house was “honoured to be entrusted with the sale”, and adding, “He’ll be missed more than we realise.”
“They’re dear to my heart, but you can’t take them upstairs with you.” Denis Savill, Arthur Boyd Show, Savill Galleries Melbourne, 2000.
Sidney Nolan The Questioning (1966).